Scouting Mississippi State
NC State football will play its first road game of the 2021 football season on Saturday, Sept. 11 against Mississippi State in Davis Wade Stadium at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN2.
The Wolfpack and Bulldogs both won their season openers. Mississippi State rallied from a 34-14 deficit to defeat Louisiana Tech, 35-34, at home last Saturday. Coincidentally, NC State will host Louisiana Tech Oct. 2.
Here is the full scouting report on Mississippi State:
Five Mississippi State players to watch
Redshirt junior linebacker Aaron Brule (No. 3)
Brule started all 11 games in 2020 and led the defense with 8.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries while finishing second in sacks (four) and overall tackles (77). Brule, who has a reputation for being a good pass rusher, added a QB hurry in Mississippi State's opener against Louisiana Tech.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) credited Brule with 39 total pressures generated in 2020, tops among all linebackers in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
Sophomore cornerback Emmanuel Forbes (No. 13)
On a team that had many contributions from true freshmen in 2020, Forbes stood out defensively. He was named to the Freshman All-SEC team and also to Phil Steele's All-SEC second team after making five interceptions and breaking up six passes. He also added 44 tackles.
Forbes' 90-yard pick-six in Mississippi State's Armed Forces Bowl win over a ranked Tulsa squad earned him a spot on the AP All-Bowl Team. That was one of three pick-sixes for Forbes on the year, a new school record for a single season and already tied for the most in a career for a Bulldogs defender.
Forbes had a pass breakup in the season opener against Louisiana Tech.
Sophomore running back Jo'quavious Marks (No. 7)
One of several true freshmen to leave their marks on the offense in 2020, Marks is a versatile threat out of the backfield.
Although listed as a running back, Marks' biggest contributions came in the passing game in 2020. He set a Mississippi State school record with 60 receptions, the most in a single season for a Bulldogs freshman.
He makes the most of his running opportunities, too. Marks averaged 4.5 yards per attempt after running 70 times for 312 yards.
In the season opener, Marks ran 12 times for 71 yards and two touchdowns, and he also caught nine passes for 27 yards.
Sophomore quarterback Will Rogers (No. 2)
Head coach Mike Leach had never started a true freshman quarterback until he put Rogers on the field in 2020. Despite appearing in just six contests, Rogers reset the school's record books for rookie QBs in all the major passing categories.
He completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 2020, and against Louisiana Tech, Rogers picked up where he left off. He was 39-of-47 passing for 370 yards and three scores in the victory and was intercepted just once.
Rogers' accuracy mark in 2020 was a school record, breaking Dallas Cowboys starter Dak Prescott's 66.2 percentage in 2015, a year that ended with the Bulldogs defeating NC State in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte.
Sophomore receiver Jaden Walley (No. 11)
Yet another true freshman on offense that shined in 2020, Walley was named to the Freshman All-SEC team and was a second-team Freshman All-American by The Athletic last fall.
In 2020, Walley had four 100-yard receiving games, doubling the school record for most by a freshman. They came in consecutive performances in the final four contests of the regular season — on the road against Georgia and Ole Miss, and home versus Auburn and Missouri. He finished the year with 52 catches for 718 yards and two scores, and his receiving yardage was also the best ever for a Bulldog frosh.
In the 2021 opener, Walley hauled in four receptions for 64 yards and a score.
What to watch for from Mississippi State
1. The Air Raid: Leach has proven to be a winner throughout his coaching career, amassing a 144-97 career record while leading his previous squads at Texas Tech and Washington State to new heights. He has held onto his identity throughout his career: the Air Raid offense.
The trademarks are well-known: a heavy emphasis on passes, especially high-percentage and often short throws, with a goal of getting yards after the catch. Mississippi State had 228 yards after the catch against Louisiana Tech, tied for fifth most with Alabama among all Power Five teams in week one.
Of the 47 pass attempts Rogers threw against Louisiana Tech, 38 were either behind the line of scrimmage or less than 10 yards down the field.
2. The occasional explosive play: With its wide splits on the offensive line and the continuous short passes, Mississippi State can lure defenses into a bad habit and then drop a deep pass or explosive run by surprise. Rogers was 3-of-3 passing on throws of 20 yards or more against Louisiana Tech for 80 yards and a touchdown. He was also 5 of 6 on throws between 11-20 yards for 98 yards.
3. A tough run defense: In 2020, Mississippi State finished 23rd out of 127 teams at the FBS level in yards allowed per game on the ground (126.4). The 3.6 yards per carry were the 24th lowest surrendered.
If week one was any indication, running against the Bulldogs may be hard again in 2021. Louisiana Tech ran 25 times for 101 yards, or 4.0 yards per rush. That included a 59-yard run from their quarterback, Austin Kendall. Remove that run from the mix, and it's easy to see why PFF gave Louisiana Tech a run defense grade of 91.4, fifth highest at the FBS level in week one.
Three keys to the game for NC State football
1. Tackling: While Mississippi State is likely to take a few shots during the game, the majority of the passes will be short and likely caught. The key is not necessarily to force incompletions but rather get the receivers to the ground quickly, limiting the yards after the catch that the Air Raid offense tends to rely on to be successful.
How well the secondary tackles will determine a lot in how well NC State can control the Bulldogs' offense.
2. Make Rogers uncomfortable: The biggest weakness for Mississippi State may be its offensive line. It allowed three sacks in the opener against Louisiana Tech, and a year ago it ranked 108th at the FBS level in sacks allowed per game at 3.09.
NC State did not sack a South Florida quarterback once last week, and the Bulls were 113th in sacks per game given up in 2020 (3.33). However, NC State generated 10 quarterback hurries that may have played a role in three interceptions thrown by USF.
Getting Rogers to the ground is not as important as forcing him into bad throws and getting him out of rhythm. Between mixing up coverages and generating pressure, NC State needs to find a way to not allow a high-percentage passer like Rogers to get comfortable.
3. Don't turn it over: The major reason Mississippi State fell behind three touchdowns to Louisiana Tech was that it turned the ball over four times. However, that does not tell the whole story. Louisiana Tech did get a pick-six, but it only scored three points off the other three turnovers.
Perhaps more quietly noteworthy was that Mississippi State jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to a pair of Louisiana Tech turnovers in which the Bulldogs took over on the short side of the field and drove 40 and 44 yards, respectively, to scores.
Mississippi State only had two sustained drives of over 50 yards on the afternoon, and those were its final two possessions of the game.
Three numbers of note
8.85 The average improvement in points per game between year one and two in Mike Leach's offenses at his previous stops of Texas Tech and Washington State. The Bulldogs averaged 21.4 points a contest in 2020, year one for Leach at Mississippi State.
1-3 Mississippi State's record last year in the regular season, which were 10 SEC games, in contests decided by seven points or less. The Bulldogs finished 3-7 in the toughest conference in college football, and that included seven-point losses at Georgia and at archrival Ole Miss. It also lost to Arkansas by a touchdown at home.
3 Schools coached by Leach where he owns the record for having the largest comeback in history — Texas Tech, Washington State and now Mississippi State after its fourth-quarter rally from down 20 vs. Louisiana Tech.
In the 2006 Insight Bowl against Minnesota, Texas Tech came back from down 31 points to win 44-41. In 2017, Washington State defeated Boise State after trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter.